May 7, 2003
Iraqi Exiles Eager to Return Home
Many in the expatriate community are hoping to take
part in their native land's rebuilding.
Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer
From the shops of Edgeware Road to a mosque in
north London to a community center in Hammersmith, Iraqi
exiles across this capital remember the moment when
the statue of Saddam Hussein fell last month in Baghdad.
exiles remember their tears and laughter, the festive
phone calls and frantic channel-surfing to confirm their
dream come true. And many recall the thought that raced
through their minds with the strange speed of that statue
tumbling down: Time to go home.
"Of course, all of us want to go back and see our
families and have some kind of role in post-Saddam Iraq,"
said Ahmed Shames, 28, leader of a pro-democracy group
plan roughly now is to go to Iraq and make sure the
process of democratization takes place, to make sure
the transitional government remains transitional.
want there to be a representative government leading
to a truly democratic Iraq," he added. "Hopefully,
I'll be there in a matter of weeks."
Shames is politically active, he has a day job working
for the London subway system. Like the vast majority
of the estimated 300,000 Iraqi immigrants and refugees
in Britain, he is not part of the high-profile elite
whose intrigues and aspirations have been backed by
diplomats, politicians and intelligence agents in the
United States, Britain, Iran and elsewhere.
"professional exiles" have already hurried
to Iraq to stake out turf in the evolving political
the euphoria in the exile community, most Iraqis here
have strained to build new lives while holding on to
hopes of a return. The reality is complicated: For social,
cultural and economic reasons, many expatriates will
find it difficult to move back to a homeland devastated
by war and tyranny.
Naher, a 40-year-old dentist, arrived with his family
in Britain when he was 9. He has a practice, young children,
commitments and entanglements in his adopted homeland.
An energetic member of the Shiite party Al Dawa, he
wants to contribute to transforming Iraq into an Islamic
state along the democratic lines of Turkey or Lebanon.
But he does not intend to move overnight.
those who have spent a short time here, it is easier,"
Naher said. "For those with businesses, kids in
school, it's different. But they want to help out as
much as they can.
is a huge role for exiles to play with expertise, financial
and moral support. Many people here have been supporting
extended families there," he said.
they plan a visit or a one-way trip, however, a variety
of Iraqi Britons are packing bags and applying for visas
these days. They include students and grandfathers,
recently arrived rustics and dapper second-generation
activists. They want to lend a hand in the reconstruction
of a society that needs all the energy and skills the
displaced have to offer.
see my big role as helping people in Iraq as a doctor,"
said Abtenale Hussaini, 21, who was born after her family
fled that nation, which she has never seen.
want to go back very soon, just to go and visit and
see what I can do. But then I want to move back and
start working as a doctor."
a fourth-year medical student, wears a Muslim scarf
with a stylish coat-and-slacks outfit. She belongs to
Iraqi Prospect, an activist group of students and professionals
in their 20s and 30s led by Shames.
attend the Dar al-Islam Foundation's Iraqi Shiite mosque
in north London. The mosque's conservative elders want
Islam to have a central place in Iraq's political future
and view the allied military forces there as a necessary
imam of the mosque, who has since departed for Baghdad,
said in his sermon April 18 that the soldiers should
stay until the country is stable but no longer.
presence of the coalition forces is a reality in Iraq,
but it cannot remain," imam Hussein Baraka told
an overflow crowd at the first Friday prayers after
the regime's collapse.
has nothing. No water, electricity, security. Of course
we are against the coalition. But we want security,
to establish ourselves first, and then we will call
for the departure of the coalition."
mood is somewhat different among Westernized students
and professionals. Hussaini and Shames shrug off the
criticism and anti-American grumbling of older exiles,
other Arabs and most Europeans their age. Instead, the
activists cheer President Bush and British Prime Minister
Tony Blair and call the war a success.
think this is probably one of the cleanest wars in history,"
remember before the war they were saying half a million
casualties? We kept saying these are exaggerations,
worst-case scenarios," he said. "These figures
were used by the antiwar movement to support their case.
And we kept saying this is not going to happen because
the Iraqi people are not going to resist the coalition
forces. And people were actually pretty friendly to
civilian casualties of the war, Shames said, pale in
comparison with the massacres of Iraqis by Hussein's
regime. Shames and Hussaini were saddened by the reaction
in London and the Mideast among many non-Iraqi Arabs,
who, they said, demonized the allies and seemed disappointed
that Hussein did not put up a bloodier fight.
Arabs saw him as a symbol, as an idol," Hussaini
said. "So it's great. Your symbol ran away. I hope
that this will create democratic changes in the Arab
world. Every Arab leader felt a shiver when they saw
what happened to Saddam."
Ali, 52, also has encountered flak from fellow Arabs.
a counselor at the Iraqi Community Center in London's
Hammersmith district, went shopping at his local Syrian-owned
grocery a few days after the defeat of the regime. He
was in high spirits, but he became embroiled in an argument
with the owner and two customers, an Algerian and an
Egyptian. They told him the Americans would turn Iraq
into a puppet state.
said the Americans are going to write your textbooks,
dictate what your people study," Ali said. "I
told them the Iraqi people are happy and you act like
you are in mourning. It was uncomfortable. I had to
flee the shop."
jubilation is shaded by fear and concern, however. He
came to London a decade ago after Hussein's troops suppressed
an uprising that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Ali and many other Iraqis have not forgotten what they
consider a betrayal by former President Bush, whose
administration encouraged their revolt but did not step
in to finish off Hussein.
Ali said, the allies' failure to capture the Iraqi leader
keeps resentment and conspiracy theories alive.
community center, which provides social services to
refugees and immigrants, has worked to put worried clients
in touch with loved ones marooned in the war zone, much
of which is still without telephones and other basic
services. Yet like many of his clients, Ali refused
to enter his personal information on a Red Cross Web
site intended to help communication between exiles and
relatives in Iraq. The site is open to all viewers,
Ali said, and police-state paranoia dies hard.
are still worried that the genie can come back,"
he said. "He came back 12 years ago. They won't
trust the occupiers that easily."
Ali, trust will come with tangible proof of Hussein's
physical and political demise. "I am waiting until
I see DNA evidence that the regime is gone," he
activism has cost him years of hardship. An electrical
engineer by trade, he has always lived and breathed
politics. He lost a brother to Hussein's secret police,
one of the hundreds of thousands of countrymen to die
in their youth "the age of the flowers,"
as Ali calls it because of wars or political
took precedence over family life. Ali did not get married
until after arriving in London. Now he wants to go back
to Baghdad, at least for a while.
has been talking to other exiled engineers, who calculate
that there are thousands of their colleagues among the
estimated 4 million Iraqi expatriates around the world.
Beyond practical skills, they have Western ideas to
outside Iraq have lived in democratic societies,"
he said. " They have learned to be accepting of
other opinions, to coexist with Jews, Americans, British.
We wish we can transfer this experience. Because I don't
think building a real democracy will be an easy process."
on one point, Ali's nationalism remains as fierce as
if he never set foot outside Iraq. He doesn't want to
hear any more erroneous descriptions of the day U.S.
troops took over his hometown.
wasn't the fall of Baghdad," Ali declared. He smiled,
tears welling in his eyes just like when Hussein's
statue bit the dust. "It was the rise of Baghdad."